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by William H. Benson

June 14, 2007

     On June 12, 1987, twenty years ago this week, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Two years later Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, did permit the Germans to pull down the wall that had divided East and West Berlin since 1961, since the days of Khrushchev and Kennedy.

     Reagan’s injunction to Gorbachev was Reagan’s finest moment as President, for he understood better than others that America leads best when she promotes peaceful solutions to the seemingly insolvable problems that challenge the world’s nations. Always open, expansive, sunny, and self-confident, Reagan had earlier called the Soviet system “an evil empire” and had predicted that it would end up on “the ash heap of history.” Events in his lifetime proved him correct.

     Walls surround us and dictate where we are, who we are, and what we do. It is human nature to build walls with whatever materials are at hand: trees, sod, stones, or steel, for walls offer us security and protection. A home’s boundaries are determined by its walls.

     Some walls were built to stay, such as the Great Wall of China, built over thousands of years with “dedication and devotion” and “exemplary discipline,” but, as one commentator put it, “This is how the world’s energy is wasted.” And then there are those walls about the castles built all across Europe a millennium ago.

     “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls come a’tumbling down.”

     Today new walls are going up: the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, and the proposed seven-hundred mile wall between the United States and Mexico, even though at last report only two miles had been built.

     Two weeks ago Reagan’s diaries were published, and they show a man very comfortable acting and serving as President. He spent a lot of time watching television and lounging by the pool, and yet he was sensitive to the charge that he did not work hard enough as President. He wrote, “The press keeps score on office hours but knows nothing about the never ending desk & paperwork that usually goes on ‘til lights out.” He was not disengaged, but the walls of the White House determined what he did there and when.

     Above all else, Reagan championed freedom—both political and economic.

     It was Adlai Stevenson who said, “Freedom is a plant which grows only from knowledge. It must be watered by faith. It will come to leaf and fruit and flower only in the benevolent sunlight of peace.” Knowledge, faith, and peace: Let those be our garden’s walls in which freedom can flourish. Of knowledge Thomas Jefferson said, “if a people expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

     At opposite poles from knowledge, faith, and peace live fear, worry, panic, attacks, and anxiety, and within their ugly walls dwells war, death, destruction, revenge, and utter hopelessness—an accurate portrayal of Iraq today.

     Last week in Newsweek the journalist Fareed Zakaria compared the Reagan years of the early eighties with those of President Bush. “Today the United States sits on top of the world. But the atmosphere in Washington could not be more different from 1982. We have become a nation consumed by fear, worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations. The strongest nation in the history of the world, we see ourselves besieged and overwhelmed.”

     What Zakaria is pointing out are the walls, ugly walls, walls covered in multi-colored graffiti, walls that hem people in instead of liberating them, and walls that transform people into terrified victims instead of a freed people seeking out new challenges. He sees those walls, and so do I, and so do most people.


     I say, “Mr. President, tear down those walls.”